By Jill Cowan
At a special meeting Wednesday, the Irvine City Council unanimously voted to ask for a court order compelling a powerful consulting firm to open its books for an ongoing forensic audit of the effort to transform a retired military base into a grand municipal park.
“I don’t care how great someone may be,” said Councilwoman Christina Shea. “They need to follow our laws.”
The move came after a top executive at Forde and Mollrich — a firm accused of wielding undue influence over the planning of the Orange County Great Park — refused to hand over information that auditors said was necessary to gauge whether the $7.2 million in fees paid to the firm for their work on the project were properly earned.
The audit is examining how the city spent more than $200 million on plans for the park, with what the project’s critics say is little developed ground to show for it.
When he was deposed for the audit, Forde and Mollrich partner Stu Mollrich declined to provide detailed information about the firm’s overhead costs and payroll, saying that it was beyond the scope of the probe.
Audit attorneys, meanwhile, argued that the records were key to understanding the firm’s specific responsibilities under its $100,000-per-month fixed-fee strategy and public relations contract.
Furthermore, they said, the firm agreed to make internal financial records available when it signed on to work for the city.
When Forde and Mollrich’s attorneys declined written requests for the records earlier this month, the auditors issued an ultimatum: Turn over the documents by 5 p.m. Aug. 18 or get ready to appear before a judge.
The deadline passed without the records changing hands, although audit attorney Anthony Taylor told the council Wednesday that the firm offered to go to mediation earlier in the week.
Still, Taylor said, Mollrich hadn’t expressed a willingness to comply with auditors’ requests, and urged the council to move forward with the resolution.
“We’re here in large part because of Forde and Mollrich,” he said. “They are absolutely driving up the cost of the audit.”
In January, the council authorized the use of subpoenas for the audit.
Over the last several weeks, testimony from a slew of former park officials has been made public — many of whom described the park’s design process as directionless and beset by cronyism.
Those claims have been strongly rejected by the park’s most ardent champions, including Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, who say the audit is a political witch hunt.